Having a conversation with my friend Joel Lewis about poetry is like having a conversation with an encyclopedia. He may start off with William Carlos Williams, as he does in this piece, but within a few sentences, as he does in this piece, he’ll have also covered Robert Lowell’s Life Studies; T.S. Eliot’s Christianity, and the politics of the main Modernists. And he always manages to throw in something or someone that sends me scurrying to Wikipedia—e.g. in this piece “Mayakovsky.” He peppers every conversation with, “Do you know such-and-such poet?” Many times I don’t and many times Joel’s enthusiasm sends me in search of such-and-such poet. What a gift: to have a friend who sends you in search of poetry.
Joel has published five books of poetry, the latest being North River Rundown, and edited an anthology of NJ Poets, the selected talks of Ted Berrigan and the selected poems of Walter Lowenfels. A social worker for more than twenty years, he is a victim’s advocate with the Special Victims Bureau at the Richmond City DA and wears colorful ties to work.
By the way, William Carlos Williams’ home, at 9 Ridge Road in Rutherford, is still standing.
-Teresa Carson, Associate Publisher
Some Notes on Reading
William Carlos Williams in the 21st Century
I was talking recently to a young poet fully engaged in the writing life. She edits a magazine, is starting a book press, won a grant to research at the Mandeville Poetry Collection at UC/San Diego, reads all over the place and collects the mimeo books and magazines from the era of my days as a “young poet.”
This young poet was telling me that she finally got around to reading William Carlos Williams. “So, what did you think? “I asked her. “Well, I was a little disappointed. His work looks a lot like the stuff you see in magazines today.”
The pervasive influence of WCW’s work on contemporary poetry makes it hard for poets under 40 to realize what a sea change has occurred in American poetry since the 1960s. Up until that point, most poetry published in the “serious” magazines and presses were metrically formal and usually rhymed. Open forms (then more commonly called free verse) were associated with beatnik/bohemian verse and a strain of left-wing poetry influenced by Whitman and Mayakovsky and, therefore, considered of marginal interest in the mainstream and in the academy.
The 1959 publication of Robert Lowell’s WCW influenced Life Notes created a seismic shift in mainstream poetry. In the next few years, accomplished formalist poets such as James Wright, Adrienne Rich, W.S. Merwin, Galway Kinnell and Robert Bly begin writing their poems in open forms. The disciple of Williams – Denise Levertov, Robert Creeley, and David Igniatow—became major forces in the poetry world. The Objectivists – who were comrades of Williams in the 30s and had since languished in obscurity – were rediscovered and began publishing once again.
Williams also spoke to a new generation’s sensibilities. Unlike the formal Christianity of Eliot and many of his circle, Williams was firmly secular and, as a doctor, put his money on science. Unlike the conservative politics of his fellow Modernists (fascist Ezra Pound, FDR-hating Marianne Moore and ur-Republican Wallace Stevens), Williams was politically liberal with an uncommon sympathy for the poor. And unlike the doctors of his day, he even supported what was then called “Socialized Medicine” — a first cousin to today’s Obamacare.
Williams was also the first major American poet whose home language was not English. Although his father was born in the UK, he had spent much time in the Caribbean and spoke Spanish to his Puerto Rican born wife and his mother-in-law who lived with them. What his frenemey Wallace Stevens called “the antipoetic” in his poetry was actually WCW’s intentional decision to use demotic language and illuminate the quotidian world much in the way that the painters of the Ashcan School and his friends Charles Demuth, John Marin and Charles Sheeler were doing.
William’s poetry also contains multitudes. Poets as different as Robert Pinsky, Allen Ginsberg and Clark Coolidge all claim him as a poetic mentor. Both the American “plain-style” poetry and the Language poets find in his work a starting point in their practices.
Williams also wrote in multiple genres. His short stories, arguably, have been read more frequently as their brevity finds them often included in high school and college anthologies. The story “The Use of Force” is the standard work to teach a psychoanalytic approach to literature. His unique book of essays, “In the American Grain”, continues to influence those attempting a more personal approach to historical writing. His writings on art are invaluable to students of American Modernism. His masterwork Paterson is the grandpa of the documentary poetry. His play Many Loves ran for a year Off-Broadway and was staged by the Living Theater.
Did I mention that he also wrote five novels, a bunch of unclassifiable experimental texts, many literary essays and reviews and an opera? He also translated from the Spanish, French, Latin and the Chinese. He did all this while being head of obstetrics at Paterson General and maintaining medical offices in Passaic and in his home in Rutherford.
Although all of WCW’s work is in print (thanks to his long time publisher New Directions) and mostly in paperback, I suspect many poets only scratch the surface with his poetry and are mostly familiar with his “anthology” pieces or maybe only have his selected poems (often a used copy of the edition that Randall Jarrell edited that favors less demanding poems). Poets looking into the “edgier” Williams should look to the book Imaginations that collects his most experimental work. The best selected available is the edition edited by Robert Pinsky that includes lesser-known but unique examples of his art. What would be most useful would be a new edition of the WCW Reader. M.L.Rosenthal edited such a book in the mid-60s, but there is a need for an edition that will appeal to modern taste and current critical sensibilities.
And as a final note: until a few years ago, the only easily available recording of WCW reading his poetry was the Caedmon album, recorded after he had a serious stroke that affected his speaking. The folks at PENN SOUND (http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/) have hours of WCW at their site, with some of the recordings going back to the early 40s. Given the popularity of poetry recordings among younger poets, this is a great opportunity to hear the Doctor sound out poems that may have accrued the goo of familiarity and hear them in a more germinal form.